Sean Low, the president of The Business of Being Creative, LLC, is on a mission is to help creative businesses thrive. We recently talked to Sean about the intrinsic differences between conventional and creative businesses, and also learned why it's essential for artists to remain true to their work even when they are getting compensated for it.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Why did you decide to start a blog?
I started writing my blog, The Business of Being Creative, because I felt that there was no one speaking to creative business owners - and certainly no one who understood that creative businesses are different from traditional businesses. Creative business itself requires creativity and nuance in order for the art created by the business to be celebrated. I knew from my work with Preston Bailey and Vicente Wolf (among others) that I could be that voice. Eight years and more than 350 posts later, I still feel like I am just getting started.
What's the biggest difference between a creative business and a traditional business?
We need traditional businesses, the ones that provide the goods and services we have come to rely on to live in our modern world. No one needs art. We want it. Therefore, there has to be an element of subjective value when we commission an artist - be it an interior designer, architect, wedding planner, fashion designer, photographer, graphic designer, etc. - to create something for us. Creative business is about more than the thing. It is about the idea to create that thing, and the idea itself has huge value. What it costs is what the artist says it does just because it does.
Traditional business is firmly grounded in all things rational. Things cost what they do for a reason. Creative business is different. The idea costs what the artist needs to create it.
What advice do you give to creative people who shudder at the thought of having to actually run a business?
I ask them to hire really good professionals to keep them on the straight and narrow, and then I ask them to throw out whatever notions they might have about what running a business is supposed to look like. Instead, I ask them to look at the journey they want to take with their clients to create amazing work, then define their own metrics of success for check-ins along the way, get paid for them, and know that their journey will be rewarded with amazing art.
Amazing art, by the way, is not a universal definition. Amazing art is what transforms a client by allowing them to see a world they could not have imagined as robustly for themselves before they started the project. If creative business owners see their business in this light, it is much easier to jump in to develop systems and processes that work best for them. With those systems in place (ones that might look crazy to outsiders), running a business can look a whole lot more manageable.
What guidelines do you provide for creative business owners when it comes to balancing the desires of their clientele with remaining true to their own art and vision?
Client management is a huge part of my work. Here is the best analogy: creative businesses are sherpas who guide clients up the mountain until they reach the summit. This means that the path is the one the sherpa knows best and values most. It does not mean that this is the only path; just the best one for the sherpa. So the sherpa says, "Follow me, and I will do my very best to get you to the top." Allowing clients to choose the path belies the value of the sherpa. If the client were a sherpa, they would not need you. That said, no one wants to blindly follow anyone, so a sherpa should honor the responsibility to share why they know this is the best way for them. Simultaneously, they should not allow a deviation from the path but should instead respect those who choose not to take theirs.
The client is never "right" for a creative business. After all, isn't the reason they are hiring the creative business in the first place is because they do not have the answers themselves? Once the creative business is hired and has a deep understanding of what is to be created, the only thing the client should be able to do is to say yes or no and/or pay money - nothing more.
When it comes to choosing and dealing with clients, should the approach be different depending on whether the creative business is new or if the company is well-established?
Of course. As your reputation and portfolio grow, hopefully you will attract more and more of the right clients, potentially those with bigger projects. However, whether you are in business for 10 years or 10 days, you do have to take a stand. You have to believe in your art, your talent, and your faith to create and produce great work. We all evolve, but tomorrow is only your destiny if today is as it should be. Tomorrow never comes if you sacrifice the essences of all you are as an artist in the name of getting a client or making a living.
Creative business is far too personal and taxing to take on that burden and live in that abyss. It's better to go get a job than compromise the integrity of what you are all about. So no matter what the stage of creative business, if you agree to work with a client, you have to believe in your ability to do the kind of work upon which you would rest your reputation. Compromised work gets you nowhere. This is true for both new businesses that are just trying to find a place and mature businesses that have long since lost the faith in the power of their art.
What are some things to keep in mind for creative business owners who may be trying to fund their businesses - especially if they are seeking capital from investors who may not be "creative-minded?"
I have two thoughts. First, be respectful of those you seek money from. They know what they know and they are looking to invest their money to be part of your vision. You have to appreciate the world they live in and honor their position. So pay for true professionals to help as you navigate a world you do not (or do not often) inhabit. Every business is still about making money - hopefully more tomorrow than today. How your creative business is going to do that is a story that has to be told in a language your investors understand. Even if you do not speak the language, you have to make sure you are surrounded by those that do.
Next, you also need to do what you do best, which is to explain the world you do inhabit. You must translate the power of your idea, as well as your ability to both communicate and then execute that idea, into language that potential investors can understand. You must give them a reason and desire to value the idea. To do that, you must be a master of the language of your creative business, why you do things the way you do, and why that way is the very best way for you. And you must do all this in a manner that makes your business worthy of investment. As you do not speak your investors' language nor they yours, your work has to live in your language so deeply as to bring the power of its beauty to investors - not the other way around.
Since it's easier than ever to start a business, what will separate the successful creative businesses from the unsuccessful ones in the future?
Artistry and vision. Look at photography. We are only 18 or so years into digital photography. Our cell phones take better pictures than film cameras ever will. And yet, people still pay film photographers an incredible amount to shoot images for them. When the cost of production nears zero, art is all that matters and is the only thing you will get paid for. Learning how to create, define, and ultimately get paid for intrinsic value (i.e., the value of what is between your ears) is getting closer and closer to being the only thing that matters each day technology marches forward. When all creative business owners fully embrace this notion, I believe we (artists and consumers) will all be better off.
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